ABORIGINAL art takes centre stage at the revamped NGA in Canberra.
THE entrance to the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, used to be hidden mysteriously in a side street, reached by a utilitarian flight of concrete stairs or a long hairpin ramp, and through some small dark-glassed revolving doors.
Not any more. Decades after the building was opened with some fanfare by the Queen in 1982, a wide and welcoming entrance has been unveiled. Visitors can now stroll in from the main road to a purpose-built annexe, glimpsing the gallery’s famous Bicentennial memorial poles from Yirrkala through glass as they approach. The new addition has softened the brutalist concrete design of the architecturally acclaimed but not so user-friendly original building.
Once inside, the first art visitors encounter is indigenous. Gallery after gallery shows the variety and energy of work from across the continent, drawn from the NGA’s massive collection of 7500 works: joyous bursts of Pintupi colour, the austere rigour of barks from the north, pioneering textiles, the ineffable authority of early Papunya boards, the often edgy politics of contemporary urban art.
When Ron Radford was tapped to become director of the NGA in August 2004, torn away from Adelaide where he had made the Art Gallery of South Australia a gem, he inherited a plan to redesign the forbidding entry.
Andrew Andersons was the architect already working on the project; as it happens, Radford had worked with him on the luminous extension to the AGSA. (He had inherited Andersons when he was made director there, too.)
When Radford eventually arrived in Canberra, he was asked to devise a “vision statement”. A canny operator with political capital to burn, since he hadn’t even applied for the job, he included a proposal to ditch the modest entry redesign for a whole new wing.
“I said, ‘If we’re going to go to so much trouble, heritage-wise and finance-wise, why not add art galleries? Why not add a place for the permanent collection and first, in stage one, for Aboriginal art? Why not add a Great Hall for functions?’ ” Radford remarks airily, sitting in his glass-fronted office this week.
His plan was accepted.